Tuesday, March 24, 2015

That Essense is Light-Åsa Bostrom Interview with Janice Mason Steeves

 My friend, Åsa Boström is a Swedish artist and writer.  She is also coordinating the workshop in Cold Wax and Oil that Rebecca Crowell and I will teach at Ricklundgarden, Saxnas, Sweden in May.  Åsa is collecting stories from artists about their creative process. Here is her recent interview with me:

Studio Practice:
Can you describe your studio practice? For example when and how you work, what you surround yourself with while working, and how you switch over to studio-mode?

When I go into my studio each morning, I begin the day with a little ritual that sets the space for my creative work.  I wrote a blog post about this last summer.

I have a comfortable old chair in a corner. A couple of big stones  and a white pillar candle rest on a small table beside the chair. My morning ritual is to sit in the chair, light my candle and meditate.

A wood-burning stove is in one corner, bookshelves filled with art books in another corner.  On the windowsill, I have beautiful small objects gathered on my walks and on my travels—some seed pods, a clay labyrinth, a small Goddess statue from Turkey, some bird bones from the woods behind my house, an eagle feather I found on Haida Gwaii, many other feathers, and several stones. My own paintings hang on the studio walls if I am working toward a show, or they might be bare if I am just beginning a new series. I mostly listen to CBC Radio 2, the Classical music station as I paint, or I work in silence. I have to surround myself with quiet—no radio talk shows or news. That is a necessary part of holding the space from which I create.

Gathering Light 15  60x60"  Oil on canvas ©2014 Janice Mason Steeves

Creativity and Spirituality:
Can you say something about how you explore meeting points between creativity and spirituality, both in your artworks and in your practice in general? Are there ideas/concepts from spirituality that you are transferring to your artmaking, or specific spiritual practices that you are performing in relation to/that is informing your creative practice? Anything else?

Spirituality means so many different things to people. For me, it’s about the interconnectedness of life. I am interested in the meeting points of religions, not the differences. When I meditate, I might do a form of Shamanic journeying or a Christian Contemplative meditation. I don’t separate creativity and spirituality—they are the part of the whole. I find it necessary to keep working at both my spirituality and my creativity to keep a strong connection. It’s important to maintain the discipline of a regular studio practice. I work every day, very often on weekends too. I try also to maintain a regular meditation practice in my daily life and I aim for a meditative, centered place as I paint. It isn’t always easy to maintain that centered place. I might need to walk away, take a break, work on something else, come back tomorrow. Sometimes there is a creative flow that happens, where paintings paint themselves and I step back and wonder where they came from. A gift. A blessing. But most often, I find that there is a back and forth movement, where I am in the flow and then out of it—heart and head, intuition and consideration—a flow between the two.  Leonard Cohen said, “If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often. It’s a mysterious condition. It’s much like the life of a Catholic nun. You’re married to a mystery.”

Agnes Martin, the American Minimalist painter, waited for images to come to her. She called them inspirations.  And when each inspiration came to her, it came as such a clear image, that she was able to paint it exactly as it was shown to her, down to the size of each stripe that made up her painting. And when she finished that painting, she would simply wait until the next ‘inspiration’ came to her and paint that one exactly as she saw it.

I work in a somewhat similar fashion. Often an image of a painting will come into my mind. A vague image, not really clear. Sometimes that image becomes persistent, coming to me often until I try to paint it, as though it is telling me something or insisting. I try to paint what I see, but the harder I try to look at it, the more it dissolves. So I am left on my own to find it or to paint what I remember.  After that initial image, I get no more, and so I continue to paint variations on that initial one, growing and expanding the idea, until I have completed a body of work. And then, after some period of time, another image will come into my mind and I will aim to follow it.  I have been painting for over 30 years and in that process my work is becoming more and more simplified, more focused on distilling an essence and that essence for me is light.

Gathering Light 30 60x144"  Oil on canvas © 2014 Janice Mason Steeves

Creative Obstacles:
Can you name one of your largest challenges/obstacles that you’ve experienced on your creative path in the past, or are experiencing at the moment? Something you’ve had to cope with or find ways to regulate? How did you overcome it?

I think for me one of my biggest challenges in painting has been learning to trust. To trust myself and the process. I came to abstraction through representational painting which demands a whole different orientation. Kandinsky said, "Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult. It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have a heightened sensitivity for composition and for colours, and that you be a true poet. This last is essential." I found moving into abstraction to be an enormous challenge. I had to learn to trust that the painting would eventually resolve itself, and to keep painting until it did. That was an entirely different approach than I had in representational painting, where I planned the painting in advance, leaving little to chance. I can’t say that I have fully overcome the challenge of trusting the painting and I’m not sure I want to. I like the idea of the process being a little raw, vulnerable and on unstable ground. I think it keeps me honest. I find that if the work gets too easy, then I want to shift it a little so that it feels a bit unstable and I wonder again if I can trust that the painting will resolve itself.

Gathering Light 14  60x60"  Oil on canvas © 2014 Janice Mason Steeves

Creative Flow:

If you would formulate a formula for how you cultivate focus, flow and ease in your practice what could it be?
I might have addressed this in other answers. While I find it important in my art practice to meditate regularly, and have a little ritual to begin the day, I think that it’s a matter of just doing the work. I don’t find the work easy. It takes everything.

Creativity and Travel:
You travel regularly, both to teach and in your own creative practice. Can you say something about how you explore place and movement in your practice while being on the road? Do you have specific creative travel routines or habits?

I have been fortunate to travel to many sacred places in the world, and to go on several pilgrimages. I have also traveled to Spain and Ireland to do artist residencies. And while I have combined visits to sacred sites with the artist residencies I have attended, I find that I approach the residencies a little differently than I approach the pilgrimages.

I love to explore a place by walking it and by sitting in the landscape. Listening to the sounds in that landscape, talking with the people, watching the sky, feeling the air and smelling it. I explore with all my senses. I take  lots of photographs. I find that taking photos is a way of eating the landscape. I also write in my journal—ideas that come to me or events that happen or things people say to me. Only after I have spent a few days walking and sitting and smelling and listening, can I start to paint. In a residency, even though I spend some time in the landscape, I don’t have the time to distill or process the experiences before I begin to paint. So the quick small works I do in a residency become more like early responses to place, like sketches in a way.

Often it takes quite a while to get a sense of a landscape.  A landscape doesn’t always reveal itself right away or your experience of it. You have to connect with it in order to paint it. I remember once being on Haida Gwaii off the west coast of Canada where we visited many of the long-abandoned native villages where totem poles still stood in some cases, or had fallen over, left to rot in others. I had gone there on a painting trip with other artists. While I loved the landscape and felt the sacredness of it, I tried, but could not paint it. It felt to me like this land belonged to the native peoples. It was not my land to paint. These were not my totem poles to paint.

I haven’t had that sense in other countries or cultures. I have come away with a more universal essence from those places I suppose. When I was in Turkey, on a pilgrimage to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Sufi poet, Rumi, I did not paint on the trip, there was no time or space. I photographed and walked and opened myself up to experience the poetry and the whirling dervishes whose dance is intended to bring down light into the world. Afterward, for the next year, I created a body of work that incorporated the idea of highly patterned vessels of light.

I painted one year in Baffin Island in January before the light came back. We were in Pond Inlet, well within the Arctic Circle.  Outside was darkness, snow, an iceberg trapped in the fiord, and the bitter cold of that hostile climate.

In India, on a Shiva pilgrimage, I prayed and meditated surrounded by smoky incense and chanting in the Hindu temples. An unforgettable image was of small leaf candles floating on the Ganges just before dawn, each one launched with a prayer. I carried home these experiences, as I did those from other journeys and sacred places, and sat with them for a while, determining if I could find something universal about these experiences to translate into my paintings. From every journey and experience, I found that I have always translated that essence as light.


  1. Lovely, straightforward, your special clarity. Thank you for posting this.

  2. Your art work brings serenity and peace.lovely, thank you